Gerlean Gwyn Durant. I never knew her full name. Ms. Jerry. Ms. J. What would an 82 year old and a 40 year old have in common anyways?
We were neighbors for 10 years. She witnessed the growth of my children and when my once upon ago, toddler, took off charging down the sidewalk and I struggled to catch him”, I can still hear laughter from across the street. “Boy, he can run”, she said as she chuckled. Over the years, I learned that this was one of her favorite memories to relive with me.
During the spring and summer months when I would plant new flowers and take care to the elder ones, she would watch and comment on the beauty of colors from across the street. Or when our beloved native honeysuckle went through a bout of sickness, she called me over as she often did, and shared a natural remedy to revive them and bring back the color and scent she admired so much.
Birthdays were special and I would know by the way her hair was laid out, and neck beautifully adorned to compliment her birthday best. And if by chance I forgot, she would remind me by making the sassiest poses to which I would respond, “it must be your birthday Ms. J”. She honored my children’s birthdays, the same way my grandmother would have, with a few dollars or something sweet. She loved calling me over to give me a bag of sweets or a few dollars for ice cream for the kids. And even at times, when I was sure I didn’t want the kids to have sweets, I would accept them still and save them for another time. She often called my kids, “Sugar”.
Being an at home mother for the last 10 years on the block, Ms. J. was good company and I was grateful to share the days with her. Gardening, playing outside with kids, whether I was leaving out or coming in, I would hear her whisper from across the way, “Lizabeth, got something for you”. Even on my busiest of days, I learned to slow down and stop for a chat, some laughs and even a bit of oral history.
Ms. J. was 42 years my senior, and I respected her like I did my own mother and grandmother, and taught my children to do the same. She confirmed for me that you are only as old as you feel. At 80 she had saved up and bought herself a new car. I loved seeing her take off in that car as the car sped up to catch up with her.
Turns out, we had a lot in common. Ms. J. was young at heart and I, old in spirit.
Food was undoubtedly our common ground. When I would bring her green tomatoes from our garden, she would give us fried green tomatoes. When she introduced us to poke greens, which grew wild in our backyards and the kids happily picked, she would send them back hooked up and ready to eat. I had never had poke greens before, but loved the wildness of it all.
We shared stories of food, of her childhood in the South, living on a farm, churning butter and making fresh corn bread in a caste iron skillet. Or how she would complain that the “chicken nowadays just ain’t the same chicken she grew up eating, “no taste and no color”, she would say. When I baked, for business or pleasure, I baked with her in mind, she loved my blueberry crumb cake. She loved them because they had lots of blueberries, she would say. She loved cheesecake too, only I was not much of a cheese cake fan, but would shop around to find it, the healthiest as I could, with strawberries, was her preference. Then there was okra. When I bought some for my family, I would make sure there was enough for Ms. J. “Fried okra tonight” was her expression of gratitude. We also shared a favorite food, FIGS, fresh or dried, however we could get them. Ms. J. would light up like a kid on candy, when I made my way to her with figs. I had always told her that I wanted to plant a fig tree and that we would share. That season soon past.
As the year progressed, I started to see less and less of Ms. J. It was unusual to not hear her voice or see her face during the warm months of the year. A year ago, Ms. Jay became ill and when I stopped in to see her with cards from the kids and FIGS, I realized that things were changing. She shared her medical history and her present failing kidney. She was adamant of no more medical intervention the doctors were suggesting. I loved that, at that moment, as sweet as things were, there was no sugar coating. “When its time to go, I want to go”, she said. It was all too real, and even though most of our talks were centered around food and the living, it was time to talk of the inevitable, to come full circle. The same process plants go through to ensure our health and survival. I respect her even more for being so honest and so courageous in this brave new world, that’s not so new at all. Her ways were, ancient and shined through timelines and dimensions.
As with the natural evolution of things, her illness was getting the best of her, and I was no longer a full-time stay at home mom and on the move. So we saw each even more sparingly. Last week, after work, I baked her favorite blueberry crumb, and cut a slice, still warm from the oven and anxiously headed over. The thought of her smiling face and hands on the warm bread, was motivation for me to get it to her as an after dinner dessert. When she was home and well, Ms. J. always answered her door, but not this day. Her son said she was doing “real bad” and I replied, she did say, “when it is her time, it’s her time.” I handed him the bread and he promised to get it to her.
Knowing how much she loved food, my food, whatever I cooked and shared or grew and shared, I stopped by the following evening, this time with white bean and kale soup I prepared for dinner. Secretly hoping that the sacred energy in the food would help heal her pain and extend her time, I scooped the soup and my essence from the pot to the container, sealed it and made my way across the street.
Only this time, I knocked and knocked and received only silence as I peered through the pitch black charcoal and empty canvas blinds. I crossed back over to my side of the street again, with warm soup in hand. I was too late. That night, I didn’t hear the ambulance, or see it’s flashing lights. The morning after, the vibration of Wingohocking Terrace was something I had never quite experienced so close to home. Our neighborhood has given birth to gardens, babies (my own), block parties and even petty crime, but I had not yet lived this experience.
The following evening, my husband walks in and says, “Ms Jerry’s gone, she had your blueberry bread.” Turns out he kept his promise. My prayer to the universe is that the energy in the blueberries, (beyond the antioxidants) she loved so much, sang to her soul, soothed her spirit, and carried her lightly into the unseen.
As her daughters thanked me for loving their mother, I let them know how thankful I am to have had the chance to really love my neighbor and even more grateful for the experiences that food and love make possible.
My hope is that wherever she is, that it’s filled with luscious fields of blueberries, the crispness of okra, the creaminess of cheese cake, the aroma of fried green tomatoes and the wildness of poke.
RIP Ms. J.